When I came out to my best friend in my mid-20s, she asked me not to come out to her parents. Not then, not ever. We grew up in the rural south and I was the first person in any of our social circles to declare myself a lesbian, so I thought maybe my best friend just needed some time to get okay with it, and then I’d tell her mom and dad, who’d taken me in in high school and become like surrogate parents to me. But she never relented, and years later when our lifelong friendship was coming to a heartbreaking end, she again reiterated that she didn’t want me to tell her parents I’m gay. It was silly at that point; everyone knew. “You’re still so embarrassed I’m not straight,” I said to her. She said, “No! I’m asking you not to tell them FOR YOU. Not everyone is as accepting as me.”
So when I was watching Netflix’s adaptation of ND Stevenson’s beloved, best-selling graphic novel, Nimona, this weekend, and those exact words came flying off the screen, I had to pause it because I felt like my heart had gotten punched in the face.
That’s how things start off with Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the other main character in her story, Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed). She’s a pink shapeshifter who can take on any form, from domestic animals to fantastical beasts to a teenage girl. In their technofuturistic medieval colony (“monk-punk,” Stevenson calls it), with flying cars and high-tech gadgets, Ballister was once a Knight of The Institution, until he was framed for a terrible crime and cast out by his comrades, including the secret love of his life, fellow knight Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang). Ballister vows to get revenge and restore his good name. Enter: Nimona! An absolute agent of chaos who wants to help him because she, too, is an outcast and she’s looking for a supervillain to mentor her in mischief. Nimona and Ballister are on the subway, and she’s drawing attention to herself simply by nature of existing as a shapeshifter, when he asks her to please just morph into a normal teenage girl, because not everyone is as accepting as him. He says it’ll be easier. Nimona says, “Easier for who??”
Between the time Stevenson published Nimona and Netflix released the film, he came out as trans. He says, looking back, it seems obvious that this story is a metaphor for transness, but he didn’t realize it at the time. When fans asked about Nimona’s gender, back when the story was a web comic, before it was even a book, Stevenson said, “Nimona’s a girl, but she can certainly be whatever gender she wants, depending on her mood.” At one point Nimona’s even “a big beefy dude,” which Stevenson said he loved drawing so much at the time, he wondered if Nimona should have been a boy. (“Oh buddy!” he chides himself, lovingly, in his present day comics, looking back on what he drew and wrote. “BUDDY!”)
Between the trans metaphor of Nimona and the epic gay love story between Ballister and Ambrosius (who are a little more cuddly and little less thorny in the movie adaptation), it’s no wonder Disney kept interfering, pushing back the release date, complaining about the story not being in line with their brand, etc. before finally chucking the movie in the garbage, from whence Netflix plucked it out and breathed new life into it. Just as Stevenson somehow magicked Netflix into green-lighting She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s unmatched all-ages queer storytelling, he bamboozled them with Nimona too. This baby is gay.
It also tackles class issues, and the terror and freedom of defying The Institution. One of the most interesting things about the film is how both Nimona and Ballister want revenge for what happened to him, but she wants it because she wants to watch this tyrannical heteronormative world burn, whereas he just wants this terrible world to accept him. (You can see why this wasn’t a good fit for the Disney Princess animated brand.) They both learn a lot about themselves as their hijinks find them working seamlessly, side-by-side, and also find them often at odds, motivationally and ethically, because they want the same thing for vastly different reasons.
I haven’t stopped thinking about coming out, all those years ago, since I watched Nimona. I dream about the end of my relationship with my childhood best friend some times, but I never talk about it, and I especially don’t write about it. Because we loved each other so dearly, so deeply, but she just wanted me to be normal, and I am so very not normal. I wish I’d known Nimona back then, so when I heard, “It’d be easier if you were straight” I could have quoted that vivid pink shapeshifter, and shouted back, “Easier for who??” But mostly I wish I’d known Nimona back then so I could have watched an outcast Knight of The Institution embrace her. Because in the end, Nimona and Ballister realize that they love each other more than the idea of getting revenge, that they’ve both changed shapes into something that fits together like family.